China’s feelings toward foreigners frequently change from acceptance and curiosity to fear and rejection. For instance, during the early years of the Ming Dynasty, the seven great naval expeditions of Zheng He brought China into contact with foreigners in Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, and the East Coast of Africa, but in the following decades, Chinese were forbidden to travel abroad. In subsequent centuries of European colonialism, outsiders were only allowed to enter China through specific ports like Guangzhou, where I live now. Today there are still some European consulates within these remnants of colonial architecture on tiny Sand Island (Shamian Dao) along the Pearl River (Zhu Jiang) in the middle of the city.
In more recent times, during the Mao years, foreigners were forbidden and reviled while Chinese children were taught that America was their arch-enemy. A couple of years after Mao’s death, America was suddenly a friend, just in time for the early phases of globalization through GATT, the Lima Declaration (1975), and of course later, the WTO. All of these brought technological advancement to the Middle Kingdom, a society that was as underdeveloped as any Communist system in the 20th century, due to decades of radical cultural change and impoverishment.
Chinese born in the early or mid-70’s seem especially schizophrenic toward foreigners, having been exposed first to anti-Western, and then immediately afterward to pro-Western propaganda. Their feelings of attraction and curiosity are followed by obvious signs of fear, and nearly all of them say they are nervous around me or other foreigners, an admission that confirms the love-hate attitude.
Another example lies in the various appellations outsiders are given by residents of the largest cities of China. Within these cities, these examples of the apparent material advancement resulting from the above mentioned treaties, inside these expansive beehives, whose chief products are suffering, soot, and another less polite word beginning with ‘s’, I have witnessed their residents—those with whom I’ve worked for years as an English teacher—pointing at me as they instruct their two-year old children whom to fear, declaring in a voice only a bit less urgent than the cries of the pod people in one of those body snatcher films when a human is discovered amongst them: “Laowai! Laowai!!” At such a young age, the children are responding even more to the emotional content of their parents’ voices than to the specific words, which translate in English to outside person. They also call us ghost people, or black ghost people if your skin is much darker than theirs. In Mandarin, it’s transliterated as gui lao into the official pinyin system of Romanization.
Just this week, the Chinese have forbidden the mixture of English words or acronyms into Mandarin sentences, and who can blame them for trusting their instincts and fearing our influence, linguistic or otherwise? From the Treaty of Nanjing (1842) to the Eight Nations Gathering (a.k.a. Boxer Rebellion of 1900) and beyond, colonialism and imperialism have been felt here, and perhaps are still at work in the form of the WTO and financial bubbles. In spite of a history of transgression by foreign devils, fair-skinned outsiders are given automatic social status by their Chinese hosts. The status we receive in the guest-host relationship is so great that agencies exist to employ us as temporary figureheads for imaginary companies in order to impress locals, who think their firm is somehow bolstered by its association with one that is foreign-owned or operated. Because of this questionable status, we are hired to speak in our native English for just a few minutes to uncomprehending Chinese audiences in order to give some mundane speech that will only be understood after the verbiage has been interpreted back into the Mandarin from whence it came. How do I know? There’s a CNN article and video news report to this effect, and I was also hired for this purpose one week ago.
A Chinese teacher in the university where I work earns a commission by referring people like me to an agency for light-skinned foreign speakers. She asked me to appear in my best suit and tie and give a one-minute speech to some unknown group of people in a hotel downtown. The money was good, I could leave after I spoke, and door-to-door transport would be provided from my apartment, so off I went. The place was completely decked out for a party and resembled a Chinese wedding. There were about 25 tables and each of their ten chairs was covered in a gilded, form-fitting fabric wrapper. There were gift bags, toys, trays full of peanuts and sunflower seeds, noise-makers, and lots of booze for each table. Balloons and waitresses were abundant and some extremely loud music was blaring non-stop to prevent any troublesome cogitation by those whose brains were not sufficiently lubricated by the strong-smelling rice wine. I was given a scrap of paper with a very short speech in English, my escort’s was written in Chinese, and it would take us less than a minute to alternately recite them. From my paper I learned that I was congratulating sales representatives of a cosmetics firm for being connected to companies from both Hong Kong and France. Double prestigiousness!!
After a long wait, the festivities finally began with a troupe of 10 faux-Shaolin performers, all of them male Cantonese in their mid-50’s, their faces exhibiting an obligatory dusting of white powder and eyebrow stenciling, and all looking extremely fit and virtuous for their age. They were clothed in silken white kung-fu uniforms with frog buttons and green-striped collars, and I imagined such clothing might be what a martial artist would wear if he died and became a guard at the gates of the Jade Emperor’s royal dragon and phoenix barn. The men ran about waving plastic swords while smiling broadly and one of them distinguished himself from the others, so he was eventually given center stage during the finalé in order to display his skill. After the swordplay, 10 female Cantonese counterparts, aged the same as the men, emerged in red chiffon outfits that exposed their bellybuttons whenever they reached for the sky. They performed a dance often seen at Cantonese outings that includes stepping gracefully in vivacious circles while making gestures and postures in unison. I noticed they all looked much stronger and brighter-eyed than most of my twenty-something English students, and as soon as their time was up, both men and women disappeared behind partitions, quick-changed into street garb, and were out the door before the next group had all shuffled onto the stage.
These were a set of eight youthful girls, all exceptionally pneumatic, some wearing white tennies, the rest barefoot. They proudly exhibited two-piece cheerleader outfits of shiny yellow material with sparkles and red trim, form-fitting in all the necessary places. They bounced a lot, the most coordinated girl was placed in front, and the ones in the back row were accomplished somnambulists. After what seemed like a very long time of standing in place with one hand on their hip, the other hand pointing upwards, and their knees generating a rhythmic motion spreading throughout their bodies, several men aimed long, slender tubes of confetti and shot multi-colored paper above and onto the girls, covering them suggestively just before they exited the stage.
During the performances of both groups, six or seven stout men in police outfits were standing next to the high-powered loudspeakers and manically blowing whistles with one hand while covering their ear nearest the sound equipment with the other. Waitresses were employed to flap toy clappers constructed of a stick with a hinge holding three, child-sized plastic hands that swung into each other, which they banged as rapidly and loudly as possible. The toys were given to as many of the guests as would accept them and training was immediately provided in the application of the devices in order to achieve the highest decibel level.
After the the warm-up was complete, the stage was set for the guest of honor, the foreigner who would bring big face to everyone present. Bizarre as the first two acts had appeared to me, I wondered how I fit into such a mélange of peculiar entertainment in the eyes of the audience. Before I could figure it all out, I was led to my place by one of the attractive hostesses in a minimal white dress, handed a large bouquet of fragrant flowers, and given a microphone. Multiple spotlights were upon me, I could barely see anything off stage, and I began to speak. I paused for interpretation, there was applause and raucous noise-making between sentences of a fairly meaningless paragraph of text, and after 60 seconds I was gone, the whole thing to become a memory. I never learned who they thought I was, probably just another laowai.
Copyright © December 26, 2010